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NEWS FEATURE: Scientists being won over in the spirit-health debate

c. 1997 Religion News Service WASHINGTON _ When 70 of the nation’s leading medical and social science researchers set out to study how spirituality and health intersect, the panel’s coordinator decided to open its first meeting with prayer. Many _ but not all _ of his colleagues bristled at the imposition of group prayer, and […]

c. 1997 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON _ When 70 of the nation’s leading medical and social science researchers set out to study how spirituality and health intersect, the panel’s coordinator decided to open its first meeting with prayer.

Many _ but not all _ of his colleagues bristled at the imposition of group prayer, and now, a year after the group started meeting, Dr. David B. Larson acknowledged that using prayer to launch the”Scientific Progress in Spiritual Research Conference”was”really unusual.””Surprisingly enough,”Larson said,”the atheists in the group applauded the move. They said that they found prayer and communication with a higher being appropriate”for such a meeting.

Atheists and agnostics made up 30 to 40 percent of the expert panel convened for the study, said Larson, a mental health expert and director of the National Institute for Healthcare Research in Rockville, Md.

Despite that tense beginning, Larson managed to hold together the diverse panel of experts in physical and mental health, alcohol and drug disorders, and neuroscience. The yearlong venture was headed by NIHR and funded by the John Templeton Foundation.

After a year, the panel concluded there is indeed a relationship between faith or spirituality and health _ something many in the public have suspected for decades but that continues to be met with skepticism by some in the scientific community.

Although some researchers say they have been aware for several decades that there is an association between religious practices and health, until now no consensus had been reached among them regarding exactly what religion or spirituality is and how it can be measured.”Studies have shown that religious and spiritual factors are integral to health care,”Larson said.”What’s remarkable is that a body of distinguished scientific researchers agree, and believe these factors are a key part of an approach to health care.” The stigma among scientists that has long been attached to religion clashes with the growing arsenal of evidence and research in this field, according to a report issued in July by the expert panel.

When the data was first analyzed by the group,”there were a lot of doubting Thomases and Thomasinas”on the panel, more than there were”believers in religion and spirituality as relevant factors in medicine.” Historians trace the disconnect back to the seminal writings of Sigmund Freud, the”father”of psychotherapy.”Ironically, psychiatry _ the medical discipline primarily responsible for pathologizing religion, largely due to the writings of Freud _ has begun to call for a reassessment of its approach to these issues, particularly in clinical care,”the panel concluded.

The antagonism toward religion and spirituality expressed by many in the scientific community has only recently begun to abate, but ever so slowly.

William Miller, who led the panel’s alcohol and drug disorders working group, contends that”the relationship between spirituality, religion and health is clear to members of the panel now, even if it wasn’t when we started.” But Miller, who heads the Center on Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and Addictions at the University of New Mexico, isn’t about to chalk up his colleagues’ new-found belief in the data to spiritual epiphany or religious transformation. Rather, he and others credit the several hundred empirical studies investigating the effects of religious involvement on health, illness and disease prevention that have been published in the last decade.”It was an awakening for me in the sense of appreciating and realizing the amount of social and scientific research that has been accumulated,”said Stephen Post, a panel member and associate director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

While Post, an ethicist and philosopher, prefers to accept the correlation between spirituality and health rather than grapple with”trying to measure its impact,”he said it’s time for the medical and scientific community to”study religion and spirituality in a scientific way.”This group,”Post said,”isn’t interested in proverbial and controversial prayer studies, but in data that is clinically relevant and that allows scientists to be more sensitive and operate out of a sense of respect for a forgotten variable that is so pervasive in society.” Frederick A. DiBlasio, a clinical social worker and professor at the School of Social Work at the University of Maryland at Baltimore, not only believes the data, he uses his own Christian faith as a tool for serving his patients.”I do research in the clinical use of forgiveness, which is associated with spirituality,”said DiBlasio, who was among the panel of mental health experts. While he has found the use of forgiveness to be”an excellent illustration … which when used in a clinical setting as a technique, really can bring people to a healing state,”his profession has found little use for it.”Why haven’t we instituted (forgiveness) into psychotherapy? Why haven’t we trained on it? Why don’t we understand that phenomenon?”DiBlasio asked before answering his own questions.”It’s simply because we’ve had a closure or bias against anything associated with religiosity.” Someday, said DiBlasio,”I would love to be able to write openly and teach openly about my particular area of expertise, which is Christianity and social work. But, it’s still tenuous whether you can do that or not.” While the doors of the academy and the professional journals are still being pried opened to the notion of spirituality, DiBlasio said his clinical practice has provided fertile ground for integrating spirituality into health care.

DiBlasio informs his clients about his personal religious beliefs and his willingness to”integrate religiosity into treatment.”But he doesn’t impose.”When I begin therapy sessions, I let patients know up front that I have some conservative values related to my faith (about Christianity in particular) and ask if there would be any problem,”he said.

Studies show that 80 percent of Americans want doctors and other health care providers to include religious or spiritual concepts in their treatment, but only 1 out of 10 doctors ever ask their patients about spirituality.

Larson maintains that doctors aren’t opposed to integrating faith and spirituality into their medical practices, rather”many just don’t know what to do. They don’t know how to ask the questions.” But a new breed of doctors is being taught how to take spiritual histories along with medical ones.

On Aug. 26, the NIHR will award eight of the nation’s leading medical schools Faith & Medicine Curricular Awards worth $25,000 each. The awards will be used to implement courses that explore the connection between spirituality and health and religious issues in patient care.

With the addition of these eight institutions, NIHR now funds Faith & Medicine courses at nearly 20 of the nation’s 126 medical schools.